‘Shadow and Bone’ Author Leigh Bardugo on World-Building

I’ve mentioned Friend of the Blog Leigh Bardugo’s YA debut, Shadow and Bone, a fantasy set in a world with some similarities to Tsarist Russia in these pages before. We sat down for a long interview to mark the book’s release earlier this month—it’s now up at The Atlantic. Hearing her talk about her world-building is fascinating: she’d been interested in that period of Russian history as a child, but chose it for the novel less because she wanted to emulate the style and politics, but because her research suggested that was an era full of a combination of factors she wanted to explore. I particularly wanted to pull this excerpt where Leigh explains how she designed the magic characters in Shadow and Bone work:

The idea for the Small Science came from my interest in what happens physically when you mutter a curse or wave a wand. What are we actually seeing? This sort of opaqueness occurs with most magic. That was sort of the first straw. I decided also that I wanted a magic that was highly constrained, because I wanted the advent of modern warfare to play a part in the story. What happens when you bring a gun to a magic fight?…If the magic is constrained, if the magic is bound by rules in a very specific system, things can get really interesting. The Grisha age is ending. Yes, they are more advanced, but they are wholly reliant on these particular skills. While the rest of the world is industrializing and creating things like repeating rifles, Ravka is falling behind…

When I created the Grisha, it was important that they be powerful but that they kind of represent the Jewish brain trust that developed before World War II and after World War II in the US. They’re these very talented people that were drawn from all over the world and cast out of places, persecuted, put to death, put in camps. So they all ended up in this one place, and for better or for worse—I think for better—they developed weapons and became a kind of brainy fighting force for the Allied Powers. And that is not is something that is strongly referenced in the book but that was sort of always in my mind in the way that Grisha had been treated. That said, in books two and three, we’re going to encounter some Grisha who had no interest in serving the Grisha or the Darkling and kind of went their own way.

A little thoughtful world design goes a long way. Designing rules your characters have to live by and that governs how the world works is a useful constraint, the kind of thing that results in consistency and clear character motivation. It’s a lesson more experienced pros who get handed hundreds of millions of dollars ::coughPrometheus:: could put to good use.